By Garner Simmons
In the Tuscan city of Siena, the saying goes, winter begins on August 17th. That is because on August 16th each year they hold the second of two races known as Il Palio [PAHL-ee-oh). And in Siena, Il Palio is all.
The first of these races is always held on July 2nd, and this year it was a heart-stopper with the owl, the giraffe, and the unicorn flying at the finish. But no one can truly understand or appreciate the outcome of Il Palio without first knowing something of the history and tradition that surrounds it. Even suggesting that it is simply a horse race is to miss the point. For if you are born of Etruscan blood like Roberto Bechi, the small fiercely loyal young man who makes his living guiding tourists around the currently fashionable Tuscan countryside, it is an almost religious experience.
Driving through hills turned golden under the summer sun, Roberto explains how the race began in the years after Sienaâ€™s victory over Florence at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. In the centuries since, the Palio has survived wars, famine, political upheaval, even the Black Death. Each race is dedicated to the Virgin. July commemorates the Madonna de Povenzano; August, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. And even though Roberto does not see himself as a religious man, he knows that in the Palio logic is ruled by faith.
Given its labyrinthine evolution, everything about the Palio is complicated. There are seventeen contrade or districts in Siena, but only ten are represented in any given race. Thus in order to decide who will run in this year’s race, one must start with the seven who didn’t run last year and draw names of three more from the remaining ten. Clearly, in the Palio, as in life, chance is a major player.
The contrade, which originated as medieval guilds, once numbered eighty. But through time and attrition, they have been consolidated into the present configuration. Mixing the sacred and profane, each contrada has its own mythic animal, patron saint, colors and coat-of-arms. Robert Bechi is a member of the Sovereign Contrada di Istrice, the Porcupine, which traces its lineage to the ancient guild of the blacksmiths while simultaneously paying homage to St. Bartholomew. Last year, Istrice won the July Palio. Roberto still revels in the victory, his contrada‘s first in a quarter century. He is therefore sanguine with the fact that this July Istrice will have no entry.
In terms of horse racing, the Palio is about as far from America’s Triple Crown as it is possible to get. This past June, when Gary Stevens rode the Bob Baffert-trained colt, Point Given, a three year-old son of Thunder Gulch, to a convincing victory in the Belmont, it was worth millions in purse and breeding rights. To the winner of the Palio goes a hand-painted banner commemorating the Virgin Mary in whose honor the race is run (indeed, palio comes from the Latin word for banner).
But the contrasts run even deeper. In the Palio, the horses are all ridden bareback by Sardinian riders, tough olive-skinned men with sinewy bodies a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than a jockey the size of Stevens. In the Triple Crown, the names of horses like Citation, Secretariat, and Affirmed live on. In the Palio, despite being honored and revered during the four days leading up to the race, the horses are nameless, selected through a series of trial heats called “batteries” and assigned to each contrada by lot. A barbero is a steed of promise, a brenna is a nag. But either way, when the race is over, it is the name of the winning contrada that is remembered, not the horse. “The truth is,” Roberto explains, “Il Palio is not about the horses at all. It is about the human spirit. There are three key ingredients — strategy, fortune, and ability — just like life.”
The track itself is more like a bullring than a racecourse. The Kentucky Derby is run at a mile-and-a-quarter. The Belmont is a mile-and-a-half. Il Palio is a kilometer. Conforming to the perimeter of Il Campo, Sienna’s central square, a single lap measures about a third of a kilometer with steep turns. To add yet another degree of uncertainty, the stretch near the Palazzo Pubblico plunges downhill then rises directly into the turn for home. In order to protect the horses’ hooves, a hard mixture of sand and clay eight inches deep and eight meters wide covers the cobblestones with a barrier on either side.
Admission to the sloping infield is free to anyone. But to really see the race, you need to be above the course. Therefore bleacher seats are erected and sold at exorbitant prices. But the best seats are in the balconies of the buildings that surround the Campo where seats and standing room go for as much as 700,000 lire (roughly $350) and have been sold out for more than six months. In recent years, the event has become televised so that the locals, who cannot afford to pay to sit in the Campo beside the well-heeled tourists, can still watch the race.
This year, the sentimental favorite is Torre, the tower, which has not won in forty years. Noting that Torre is one of the poorest of the contrade, Roberto points out that winning would place them under a heavy financial burden since with victory comes the responsibility to throw a lavish series of parties and dinners in celebration for weeks to come. In anticipation of this, on the eve of the race, Torre, like the other contrade, throws a celebratory dinner. Admission is by invitation and cost several hundred thousand lire to attend, money that will be needed to help finance the triumph they hope will come. Singing and drinking and entreating the Virgin to smile upon them, they chant “Torre” like a mantra, working themselves into a state of exhaustion. It is well after midnight before they find their way to bed.
Before eight o’clock on the morning of the race, the riders assemble in Piazza del Duomo. There, in the chapel of the Cathedral of Santa Maria, the Archbishop of Siena celebrates a special Mass just for them. Known as “fantini,” the best jockeys come from the island of Sardinia or upper Latium in west central Italy. Seen by the Sienese as mercenaries, whose only loyalty is to the highest bidder, they are the objects of both adoration and scorn. Ironically, they are also the only real risk-takers. For while the members of the contrade watch safely from the sidelines, a rider can pay for a wrong move with a broken bone, a cracked skull, or even occasionally, with his life. Even more telling is that in the Palio, should a rider fall or be thrown, his mount, called a “scosso,” can still win the race. Perhaps the riders’ cynicism is less a mystery in light of the destiny they share with the horses they ride. For in the end, all that matters to the contrada is winning the Palio.
Beneath the windows of the chapel belonging to the Noble Contrada of Aquila, the eagle, a group of boisterous young men, members of Aquila‘s rival, Pantera, the panther, sing a taunting song with a cappella exhuberance. Reverberating off the ancient stones, ten sound like a hundred. Though Panera does not have a horse in the running, Aquila does. Hence the song is filled with jibes intended as insults. Finishing in laughter, the young men run off through the streets like unbridled colts. Reaching the relative safety of their own turf, they invade a small piazza where a bronze stature of a panther crouches above a fountain. Snatching up large plastic bowels, they spontaneously begin a water fight, dousing each other as well as anyone passing by. Dressed in tight-fitting white slacks and a white blouse, an attractive young woman approaches with an enigmatic smile, watching as the young men drench each other. Laughing, they soak her as well, revealing her tan body beneath saturated cotton. Nipples erect. Thong panties, no bra. She is the vision they’ve been seeking. A new Madonna for a new Millennium. Their eyes lick her dry as she disappears around the corner and is gone.
At three in the afternoon, led by a groom called a barberesco, each competing horse is led to the steps of its contrada‘s chapel for a blessing. Wild-eyed and skittish, a roan draped in a silk saddlecloth of crimson trimmed in blue and white walks tentatively down the cobbled street leading to the Torre chapel. A crowd, including men in medieval dress and a robed priest, awaits. The horse spooks easily and must repeatedly be steadied as the priest, perhaps trying to atone for last night’s libations, drones on. At last, he completes his benedicition with “Va e toma vincitore…” Go and return victorious. Spontaneously, the crowd begins to chant “Torre! Torre!” As the horse is led away, they break into song. Looking like they have just stepped out of the 13th century, a comparsa or group attired in period costume quickly assembles. They represent the contrada. Led by a drummer and two ensigns, each with a flag, they are followed by il Duce, the leader with two men-at-arms. Next comes the standard bearer, then the fantino they have hired for the race riding a parade horse. And last, the barbery roan that will carry them hopefully to victory led by its barberesco.
And so it goes thoughout the city. Performing as they move through the serpentine streets, each cantrada makes its way to the Duomo where they deliver a flag salute to the Archbishop. Then forming a procession known as the Corteo Storico, they begin the long march to Il Campo.
It is five in the afternoon when suddenly the first of two bellringers stationed atop the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico begins to ring the Great Bell by physically impelling its clapper back and forth. A moment later, the procession, led by a squad of mounted Carabinieri, enters the Campo at last. The crowd has swelled into the tens of thousands jamming every available space. Sabers drawn, the Carabinieri ride the ring as if to secure it for the race to come. Then with a flourish, their commander raises his sword and leads them in a full cavalry charge around the ring once more as he crowd explodes with spontaneous applause.
It is better than two hours (the bellringers never stop) before all seventeen contrade have entered the Campo. In an atmosphere reminiscent of Mardi Gras, each new pair of ensigns attempts to outdo the last as they demonstrate the noble art of flag-throwing. At the same time, several of the horses become impatient. Fractious, Aquila‘s entry draws the crowd’s attention as he catches the scent of a mare and becomes instantly erect. As someone in the stands suggests we may be about to witness the first attempt by a horse to mount his rider, the barbereso quickly leads the excited animal away in an attempt to calm him.
At last, the Carriccio arrives, a great war chariot drawn by four Chiana oxen and bearing the palio itself suspended from a mast. Guarded by eight medieval infantrymen, each with a sharp-bladed halberd, its entrance is heralded by a half-dozen trumpeters who stand on either side. Seeing it, the crowd erupts. After hours of waiting, the race is finally drawing near.
It is past seven in the evening. The sun has slipped behind the buildings of the Campo giving the track a luminescent glow. As the oxen finally exit taking their chariot with them, the ten horses of the participating Contrade ride onto the track: Aquila (eagle), Chiocciola (snail), Selva (woodland), Tartuca (tortoise), Civetta (owl), Leocorno (unicorn), Nicchio (shell), Torre (tower), Drago (dragon), and Giraffa (giraffe). As they enter, each fantino is handed a stiff ox-hide whip known as a nerbo. Intended to be used on the horses, just as often it is used on the opposing riders, for once the Palio has begun, victory is all that matters.
The horses approach the verrocchio, a dark wooden stand from which the judges will view the race. A pair of ropes now stretch across the track forming a kind of starting paddock. Stepping forward, a policeman delivers a sealed envelope containing the official order of start. Instantly, the Sienese fall silent. Caught unaware, tourists continue to babble but are quickly silenced as the mossiere, the starter, reads the list. Only two positions are important: the first, for the rail is he shortest distance around the course; and the last, for the rider on the final horse can manipulate the start to his advantage since they will not start until he is in place.
Circling just outside he ropes, the riders, motivated more by money than honor, call out to each other, brokering last minute alliances between themselves which may bring them victory. Then, at the mossiere’s direction, they start to move into position. Since there are no handlers to help steady the horses, they enter and exit the ropes several times as their riders fail, sometimes intentionally, to get them properly into line. After more than twenty minutes, the last horse slips between the ropes and with a drum roll, they are off.
Sprinting in a tight bunch through the first two turns, their momentum carries them wide out of the third as the riders for Leocorno and Civetta, whose contrade have been adversaries longer than anyone living can recall, begin lashing each other with their quirts. At the same time, the riders for Chiocciola, Tartuga, and Torre do the same as the horses careen downhill. But as they start uphill into the next turn, suddenly Leocorno‘s rider is unseated. Slamming into the wall, he goes down hard as the other horses narrowly miss trampling him. Lying dazed on the track, he doesn’t move as his mount races on without him. Knowing they only have twenty seconds before the horses return on the second lap, four young men rush onto the course. Pulling the injured rider to his feet, they drag him off bleeding and disappear down an alley where an ambulance stands waiting.
Halfway through the second lap, Nicchio rides clear of the pack opening a commanding lead of a dozen lengths. In the stands, Nicchio‘s supporters go wild. But as the horse makes his way past the verrocchio and begins the final lap, he suddenly breaks down. Seeing their entry come up lame, their cheers becomes groans as the rest of the field gallops past.
Riderless and running free, Leocorno abruptly bolts past the others. Giraffa and Civetta race after him, closing the gap with every stride. Down the hill past the Palazzo and up into the final turn for home they run, their riders furiously whipping the flanks of their tiring mounts. As Leocorno streaks for the finish line marked by a small black and white metal flag known as the bandierino, the other two are upon him. The three horses drive to the wire. In the end, less than a length separates them all as Leocorno, the unicorn, wins by a head.
Spontaneously, the ensigns for all seventeen contrade rush onto the track waving their flags. At the same time, across the Campo, a gate opens and a dozen young men race toward the celebration waving Leocorno flags of orange, white and blue. At the judge’s stand, the banner celebrating the Virgin — il palio — is lowered and given to the winners, who jubilantly take it to the Basilica of Provenzano to give thanks. Then the partying begins.
Among the losers, bitter disputes break out as every detail of the race is gone over and dissected in minute detail. Once again Torre as come up short. Among its supporters grown men being to cry. Having watched the race on television, Roberto is philosophical. Torre did not win. But like his beloved Istrice last year, their time will come. For Il Palio is like life, a river without end. But in truth, for Torre, only a victory in August can warm the long Tuscan winter that lies ahead.